Steel form tie shortage threatens construction safety

By Jenny LescohierJune 09, 2021

The deficit of steel form ties currently stands between 50 and 60 million, and 4 and 5 million ties are being added to that each month

The shortage of steel form ties in the U.S. continues due to a “perfect storm of elements” and has become a serious safety concern, said James Baty, executive director of the Concrete Foundations Association (CFA).

“There is no short-term solution… right now my indications are that we’ll still be talking about a steel form tie shortage at the beginning of 2023.”

In the meantime, the CFA and other stakeholders aim to alert contractors that short-term, work-around solutions could do more harm than good and should be avoided.

“We’re starting to see some failures in construction that we believe are a real risk, not only to construction quality but also to life safety,” Baty said.

Form ties are used to connect opposite faces of wall formwork to restrain the applied concrete pressures. They transmit loads in tension between stiff vertical and/or horizontal members associated with the main formwork.

Examples of shortcuts being used to circumvent the shortage of steel form ties include the use of alternative systems, for example a wire loop form tie, which aren’t designed to handle the same load as traditional steel form ties. In other cases, contractors are using fewer ties or lower-grade steel to secure formwork, resulting in weaker overall construction.

Baty stressed that any “work-around” could be dangerous to the structural integrity of the buildings being constructed. Adding to the problem is the fact that building inspectors are unlikely to notice the use of sub-grade solutions. “This is beyond the scope of the typical building inspection,” he stated.

Traditional steel form ties use a steel with tensile strength of 130 to 140 ksi, Baty explained. “We’re seeing some being used today that are well under 100 ksi. That doesn’t offer high enough capacity, and those walls will fail,” he said.

The shortage of steel form ties is a result of a combination of factors, some relating to market supply. While form ties are manufactured domestically, a significant volume of the supply has transitioned over the past decade to imported ties from China in an effort to meet rising demand and address cost issues.

“This shortage has evolved… into a significant industry issue,” said Baty. “The record level of housing starts in 2020 has combined with significant factors such as purchasing practices, raw material depletion and tariffs on imports, as well as the pandemic’s impact on both shipping and manufacturing.”

Jason Ells, senior vice president for Custom Concrete in Westfield, IN, said form ties are the most essential component of the cast-in-place concrete forming industry. “They must be designed to handle the rigorous pressures and permit the rapid construction schedule that has long been an advantage of this method,” he said.

“We have been feeling the impact of this shortage for several months now and can see that it stretches from raw material and imports through manufacturing and into the marketplace through supply to companies like ours. We have yet to find any relief or projected relief for the situation before it gets even worse.”

While some additional production is proposed by steel mills committing to increases of the roll stock required to stamp the ties domestically, it will likely be 2022 at the earliest before the market will realize the temporary impact of the increased supply. Likewise, the timing of imported inventory into the U.S. market remains challenged and will not likely offer much relief in the near term.

“We now stand at a deficit between 50 and 60 million ties, and we’re adding 4 and 5 million to that deficit per month,” Baty said. “Contractors everywhere are facing supply chain issues, and this one is particularly harmful because it threatens the very start of projects.”

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